Stop Being Creative

Did that headline get your attention? In our culture “creative” is very frequently a synonym for “good”. Okay, you probably don’t want the driver of the car beside yours driving creatively, and you’d likely acknowledge that burgeoning creativity wouldn’t be advisable for the structural engineer behind the Hoover Dam, or the accountants at Enron. But if these people don’t have some creative hobby, you still might look at them askance.

In his article How Creativity is Killing the Culture, Michael Fallon argues that our unexamined ideal of creativity amounts to a cultural sickness. If everyone is taught in school that creative expression is the highest measure of virtue, only rebels and failures would choose to pursue more technical-seeming disciplines such as mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. Why, we might even have to start importing these people from other countries!

This is not to say that creative expression is the same thing as creativity. Good creative expression requires not merely creativity, but also technical talent and discipline. Conversely, the most gifted physicists and mathematicians absolutely require lateral thinking and intuitive leaps. In other words, any work that is purely, actually left-brained or right-brained cannot achieve genius.

But we do this idea one better. Fallon says our emphasis is not on creativity per se, but rather creative expression. What you get when you push everyone to express themselves creatively, even those with no particular inclination or talent, is a lot of bad art and a lot of frustrated people who feel as though they need to spend more time finding themselves. Story of my generation?

Okay, that is a cynic’s view of the situation. I’m going to step back for a second and admit that I don’t completely buy Fallon’s argument. While it is bad that our could-be-Einsteins are drifting through art school instead, I think it’s every bit as tragic for someone who could have become a brilliant artist to become trapped in an accounting job. Each person has an obligation to follow her gift, and everybody needs a hobby.

We were taught to express ourselves. Some of us ignored our teachers; some of us sought an expressive hobby, or post to YouTube on occasion; some of us are struggling to make a living in an over-saturated world of professional artists and craftsmen; many of us graduated with a liberal arts degree and have no idea what to do with ourselves now. It’s hard to have a lot of sympathy for a dis-ease that’s rooted in privilege, but if the end result is (in Fallon’s words) “a nation of navel-gazing dreamy-eyed so-called creatives who no longer consider it worthwhile to roll up their sleeves and get down to hard work to get a job done”, then it’s everybody’s problem.

But wait a second, isn’t that almost verbatim my grandparents’ complaint about the hippie generation? Is it so bad if we’re becoming a nation of artists? In fact, this is exactly what John Adams hoped for the generations that succeeded him:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

The certainties of the past were born of necessity. If we’re spending a lot of time finding ourselves, well, perhaps that’s a suitable way to enjoy of the freedoms that our parents, and their parents, have purchased us. If quantity of art, or the number of art-producers, is the benchmark of a culture, then we are certainly surpassing any that has come before us.

We do need brilliant engineers, though, and architects and computer scientists and natural scientists. I hope that we can afford these sexy professions the wreath of creative mastery that they so desperately deserve.